TAMPA, Fla. — Russell Wilson’s childhood visions became a reality Monday as he reported to the New York Yankees‘ spring training facility and donned the pinstripes for the first time.
Perhaps the highlight of Wilson’s arrival came when Yankees batting practice Group 2 took center stage. Wilson joined Yankees sluggers Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird for a few rounds of live hitting. Unofficially, Stanton paced the group with 15 total home runs, while Judge had 10 and Bird had eight. Wilson got on the home run leaderboard, too, eclipsing Sanchez by one with six long balls.
Although he took some soft toss over the weekend, Wilson, with his 31-ounce Louisville Slugger that had his name printed on it, said this was his first batting practice session in a while.
“This is what I’ve known my whole life,” Wilson said. “Now, I couldn’t just step on a basketball court. I wouldn’t be good at basketball, but baseball, it’s like riding a bike once you get back out there for me. It’s not an easy sport, though. It’s very, very difficult.”
Difficult or not, Wilson is enjoying being back around baseball.
“It’s definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Wilson said about putting on a Yankees jersey for the first time, with a nod to Babe Ruth. “I tried to get No. 3, but I think somebody had it already.
“Ever since I was a young kid I always dreamed to be a Yankee. I always watched them. My favorite player was Derek Jeter growing up, watching him, his professionalism and how he played.”
Wilson’s late father, Harrison Wilson III, was a lifelong Yankees fan. Before he died in 2010 of complications related to diabetes, the elder Wilson hoped his multisport son might one day play for his favorite team.
“I always told my dad I’d be a New York Yankee, and now I’m here,” Wilson said.
Although Wilson is officially on the Yankees’ spring training roster, he won’t be playing in any games. Manager Aaron Boone has stressed that Wilson’s primary duty is simply to enjoy himself.
Before stepping into the cage, Wilson fielded ground balls at second base. In addition to making routine throws to first, he also worked on his double-play pivots with shortstop Didi Gregorius. Wilson told Gregorius it was his first time taking ground balls in a year and a half.
“I told him it does not look like it,” Gregorius said. “He did not look rusty at all.”
Despite the circus-like atmosphere that Wilson’s arrival at Steinbrenner Field has created, he told reporters in a news conference that his appearance here was sincere.
“Some people always, for me, get confused on ‘is this just a stunt’ or whatever. They don’t know me. If you really know me, baseball’s been part of my blood,” Wilson said. “It’s been a part of who I am and where I’ve come from and what I’ve done. When you see me make plays on the football field, a lot of that’s a direct correlation to baseball.”
Although he wants his players to pick Wilson’s brain about leadership, Boone has kept his charges to Wilson simple.
“I don’t want him to feel like he’s got to address this or do that. I want him to kind of come in and just kind of be himself, and get to know us and enjoy himself. A lot of our guys will benefit from him being in camp. It’s exciting to see how excited he is about being here.”
Yankees such as Oregon-born Seahawks fan Brandon Drury are ready to see how this week unfolds.
“The guy’s a winner,” Drury said. “Whether it’s baseball or off-the-field stuff. Even mental stuff … I know he’s really smart and he studies the game and he cares.”
Wilson, who played college baseball at NC State, was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies. The Rangers acquired him from Colorado in 2013. Wilson spent parts of two seasons playing Class A ball in the Rockies organization before he was selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft by Seattle.
“I’m going to immerse myself in everything that they’re doing,” Wilson said of the Yankees. “I want to learn as much as I can and also compete as much as I can.”
ESPN’s Jenna Laine and Jon Scher contributed to this report.
Shin-Soo Choo to play for South Korean club on 1-year, $2.4M contract
SEOUL, South Korea — Free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has agreed to a one-year contract to play for a baseball club in his native South Korea.
Choo, who spent the last seven seasons with the Texas Rangers, signed a 2.7 billion won ($2.4 million) deal with a Korean Baseball Organization team owned by an affiliate with the Shinsegae business group, the company said in a statement.
Choo, 38, has confirmed the deal.
“I was born in Korea where I was raised and started baseball. I’ve always had hopes in my heart for a long time to play in Korea one day. Now I think it’s time to put into action and start a new chapter of my life,” Choo posted on Instagram. “I might not be able to promise how good I will be, but I promise that I will do my best.”
Earlier this week, E-Mart Inc., the biggest discount store chain in South Korea, finalized deals to take over the SK Wyverns baseball team based in Incheon, just west of Seoul. The team’s name is tentatively called E-Mart Electros, but it could change, company officials said.
“The Shinsegae Group has listened to the voices of Incheon baseball fans who want us to bring Choo Shin-soo,” the Shinsegae Group said in a statement. “[We]’ve been paying attention to his successful career, diligence and steadiness.”
The 2.7 billion won annual salary for Choo is the biggest of its kind in the KBO league. Choo plans to donate 1 billion of that to social charities, according to the group statement.
During his 16-year career, Choo batted .275 with 218 home runs, 782 RBIs and 157 steals in 1,652 appearances. He was selected as an All-Star in 2018. Before the Texas Rangers, he played for the Seattle Mariners, the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds.
Fresh off Cy Young season, Shane Bieber, 25, would ‘love to dive into’ contract talks with Cleveland Indians
They don’t seem to be in quite the same rush.
Earlier this week, Bieber — who at just 25 led the majors in wins, ERA and strikeouts during the shortened 2020 season — didn’t hold back his excitement when asked about potentially meeting with the team about a long-term deal.
“It’s absolutely something I’d be open to,” Bieber said on a video call from camp in Goodyear, Arizona. “In terms of conversations, it really hasn’t happened yet, so that’s something I’d love to dive into and hopefully that will be reciprocated as well.”
On Wednesday, Chris Antonetti, the team’s president of baseball operations, wouldn’t comment specifically on any planned talks with Bieber while hinting that Cleveland might be able to do something with him in the not-too-distant future.
“We’ve found it most constructive not to talk about individual circumstances with particular players,” he said. “Setting that aside, obviously, Shane represents all the things we would want our players to be, both on the field, the teammate he is, the way he prepares, the way he competes.
“We are hopeful that Shane will be here for a really long time to come.”
Bieber is likely to earn about $575,000 this season — meager for one of baseball’s best pitchers — and he’ll be eligible for salary arbitration after each of the next three seasons. This might be the ideal time for the Indians to extend him, and the club does have a history of doing that in the past with players like Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner in Cleveland.
But money is always an issue for the mid-market Indians, who couldn’t get All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor to bite on a long-term deal and wound up trading him to the New York Mets this winter before he walked as a free agent.
There’s plenty of time to get something done with Bieber, and with numerous guaranteed contracts expiring after this season, the Indians, who have slashed their payroll to $38 million, will be better positioned to lock up the right-hander to a long-term deal.
Antonetti said that future financial flexibility will allow the Indians to bend.
“It gives us a variety of options,” he said. “Part of the reason, if you look at the composition of our roster, it’s a lot younger and at different points in the service spectrum than maybe we’ve been at different points over the last few seasons. I would expect over the next six to 12 months, the guarantees that we will have moving forward will increase and you’ll start to see some of those commitments moving forward.”
Bieber was delayed in arriving at camp after recently testing positive for COVID-19.
He threw to batters for the first time on Wednesday, and manager Terry Francona wasn’t at all surprised by how he looked.
“Like Bieber,” Francona said. “Which is probably what another 30 guys would like to be. He’s such a perfectionist.”
In Bieber, the Indians have a foundational player to build around. He sets the example — on and off the field — for the club, and barring injury, there’s no reason to think he won’t get better.
If he performs the way he did last season, Bieber won’t get any cheaper, which is why it would make sense for the Indians to sign him to a long-term deal sooner than later.
Cleveland knows it has a special player.
“Leadership is something that’s earned by the way you go about your business, and Shane has earned that opportunity to lead because of the way he carries himself, because of the way he works, because of the way he prepares, because of the way he treats people and how much he cares about winning,” Antonetti said.
“And it’s really easy for Tito (Francona) or (pitching coach) Carl (Willis) or for me when young pitchers are coming up and they say, `Well, I want to be great. I want to be the best I what I do. How do I do that?’ And we could say, `Hey, look at Shane Bieber. Do what he does.’ It’s a pretty good example to have in the clubhouse.”
Throwing live batting practice, an optimistic Shohei Ohtani tops out at 97 mph for Los Angeles Angels
Shohei Ohtani said he topped out at 97 mph while throwing live batting practice on Wednesday, an encouraging development that further supports the enthusiasm voiced by prominent members of the Los Angeles Angels throughout the offseason.
Ohtani, the Japanese two-way player who hasn’t pitched regularly since the start of the 2018 season, threw against infielders Jared Walsh and Luis Rengifo from the team’s spring training complex in Tempe, Arizona, and stated through an interpreter that his elbow feels “much better compared to last year.” The session came 24 hours after Ohtani hit in live batting practice, which falls in line with the Angels’ plan to not be so restrictive with his usage.
Ohtani, 26, made his highly anticipated return from Tommy John surgery during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season but lasted two starts — recording only five outs — before straining the flexor pronator mass near his surgically repaired elbow, limiting him to only hitting once again.
After a rough summer on both sides of the field, Ohtani set out on an aggressive offseason program in which he put himself in more game-like situations, adjusted his diet, tweaked his weight-training program, collected data to better measure his fatigue and sought counsel from third parties, including, sources said, experts at the popular training facility Driveline.
“We just kind of lift up the hood this offseason and really got down to the nitty-gritty to find out what we’re dealing with,” Ohtani’s agent from CAA, Nez Balelo, said. “And then from there we built him back up and formed a program that we thought was extremely applicable to where he’s at right now in his career.”
The Angels checked on Ohtani’s progress constantly. And as he navigated through his first offseason as the team’s general manager, Perry Minasian continually raved about the reports he received, at one point predicting Ohtani would be “a difference-maker-type player” in 2021. The Angels vowed to keep him as a two-way player and not treat him as cautiously as they might have in prior years.
“The rules are there aren’t going to be any rules,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said shortly after pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday.
The following day, Maddon met with Ohtani and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, to lay out the details of a weekly schedule in which Ohtani’s hitting would play off his pitching and also stress upon the importance of transparency.
“I want him to take charge and command his career more, in a sense, and what happens on a daily basis,” Maddon said. “The thing about him, coming from Japan — he comes from such a respectful background where I think authoritative figures are not gonna be questioned as much as it happens over here. And I wanted to tell him, ‘Hey, I’m good with this. I want you to know that I want you to tell me what you’re thinking. I don’t want you to hold back.'”
Thirty teams basically coveted Ohtani when he made himself available three offseasons ago. He chose the Angels partly because of their promise to commit to him as a two-way player, then flashed that potential in April and May of his first season — before suffering the torn ulnar collateral ligament that necessitated surgery. While rehabbing, Ohtani remained a productive designated hitter, batting .286/.351/.532 in 792 plate appearances from 2018 to 2019.
In 2020, though, Ohtani managed a .190 batting average and a 37.80 ERA. Maddon saw a pitcher who struggled to repeat his delivery and a hitter who constantly over-rotated, clear indications, in his mind, of someone who had been taken out of his routine and might have put too much pressure on himself to produce in a limited schedule.
This year, Ohtani said, “I wanna have fun and just feel good out there. And do my job where it’s [needed]. I wanna make Joe use me as much as possible.”
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